In both fastpitch and slow-pitch softball, the pitcher uses an underhand motion to throw the ball, but the techniques differ greatly. In fastpitch, the speed, movement, and location of the pitch are key; in slow pitch, where the speed of the pitch is relatively consistent, the arc and location are the most important. In fastpitch, a team’s success is often determined by the performance of its pitcher. Because the fastpitch motion is so complex and requires a variety of grips and release points for different pitches, it’s a specialized skill that requires specialized instruction. Slow pitching, although not as mechanically complex because it doesn’t include the windmill motion, does require excellent control to place the pitch at various places as it crosses the plate. The following sections outline the basic techniques for both of these pitching styles.
The most common fastpitch motion is a windmill technique, where the pitching arm starts in front of the body and makes a full circle to gather power and speed before the ball is released. Like snowflakes, every pitcher’s motion is different, but this section describes the basic mechanics for the fastball-the first pitch every young pitcher should learn because it is the base from which other pitches are developed. At younger levels, pitchers should focus only on the fastball and on developing their mechanics. Only at higher levels, after a pitcher has mastered the pitching motion, should she attempt to learn different pitches, such as the drop, rise, curveball, or changeup, that will alter the speed and direction of the balls coming to the plate. Introduce only one new pitch at a time, and make sure your pitcher has mastered each one before moving on to the next. These pitches are beyond the basic technique presented in this book; when your pitchers are ready to move forward, consult additional resources or consider bringing in a pitching coach to work with them.
Grip The fastball grip is a four-seam grip similar to the one for the overhand throw. The ball is held with the fingers, not buried in the hand, and the grip should be firm but not tight. The grip can be done with three or four fingers. In the three-finger grip, the index, middle, and ring fingers rest across a seam, the thumb should be directly across the ball from the middle finger on the other seam, and the little finger should be tucked under the ball.
Younger players or any players with smaller hands likely won’t be able to get a firm grip on the ball with three fingers. They will need to place the little finger on the ball, comfortably spread apart from the ring finger, as shown in figure 8.6.
Initial Stance The initial stance before starting the pitching motion is often called presenting the ball. Most leagues require that both feet be in contact with the pitching rubber to start the pitch. The heel of the pitching-arm foot should rest on the rubber with the toes in front, while the toes of the glove-arm foot are just touching the back side of the rubber. The feet should be about hip-width apart, both pointing toward the batter (see figure 8.7a on page 108). If trying to pitch the ball over the inside or outside corner of the plate, the pitcher can angle her front foot an inch or so in one direction or the other to help guide the direction of the pitch. When taking the signal from the catcher, the pitcher’s hands must be separated-both arms should hang loosely at the pitcher’s sides, with the ball either in the glove or the pitching hand. After taking the signal, she brings her throwing hand to the glove to adjust her grip on the ball and begin the pitching motion.
Windup The windup is a natural start to prepare for the pitching delivery. It is a controlled motion that is designed to add momentum to the arm circle, and the body does not start the delivery or go forward until this motion is completed. To start the motion, the pitcher rocks back, shifting her weight back and then forward onto the ball of the pitching-arm foot (commonly called the drive foot). The upper body remains straight, but the pitcher’s head and chest lean slightly forward at the end of the rocking motion, with the front (drive) leg slightly bent. At the same time, the pitching hand and glove start between the chest and belly and push down and out in a counterclockwise direction to begin the arm circle (see figure 8.7b). The throwing arm swings down past the hip and back so that the arm is no higher than parallel to the ground, with the palm facing down, then reverses its motion to start the full arm circle.
The pitcher can use various arm motions in her windup-for example, some pitchers prefer to bring their arms down and then up in a J shape as their windup and then immediately start the arm circle rather than bring the pitching arm back and then forward. However, the windup described here is a good starting point as you work with your pitcher to find the movement that’s most comfortable for her.
Stride As the arms come forward in the windup and the weight is on the front (drive) leg, the back leg (commonly called the stride leg) bends and starts to move forward, while the drive foot makes a strong push off the rubber. When the arms are extended in front of the body, the pitching hand comes out of the glove, with the palm facing down. By the time the stride leg is extended toward home, the pitching arm comes up next to the pitcher’s ear as the glove points to home plate, and the pitcher opens her hips (for a right-handed pitcher, this means her hips and belly button are facing third base-see figure 8.7c).
As the arm reaches the top of the backswing (often called the star position), the hips are still open, on a straight line between the pitcher and the catcher-just as the pitching hand rotates so the back of the hand is facing the hitter, with the glove still pointing toward home plate (see figure 8.7d). The stride leg is slightly flexed at the landing, with the toes pointing about halfway between home plate and third base. The stride of the glove-side foot is a controlled movement that should be thought of as a step, not a lunge or a falling action. The stride should be long enough to maintain the pitcher’s balance and allow for sufficient weight transfer. The longer the stride, the more powerful the pitch, so encourage your pitchers to take the biggest step they can while still keeping their upper bodies straight and in control.
One of the most crucial points in the fastpitch delivery is this balance point, where the throwing hand is at its highest point above the head and the glove-side foot is at its highest point above the ground. Failure to keep the weight back means the weight shifts forward too soon, forcing the pitcher to throw with just the arm. Trying to generate power or speed too early in the delivery often leads to this problem. The signs of transferring weight too early include overstriding, putting weight on the front foot only, and moving the head and shoulders forward ahead of the hips and hand.
Downswing and Release The stride foot plants just as the pitching hand rotates so the back of the hand is facing the hitter. The pitching arm begins the downswing (the glove arm also moves down at the same time), the hips begin to close, and the pitcher’s weight transfers to a firm front leg as the ball is released. The weight must be kept back until that explosive movement when the ball is snapped and all the power resources are thrust forward as the hips close at the point of release. The drive foot drags off the rubber on the toe (the drive foot can’t leave the ground, or the pitch will be called illegal). The pitching arm should remain relaxed and slightly bent through the pitching motion so it can act like a whip; during the downswing, the pitcher cocks her wrist and points the palm away from the body (see figure 8.7e). A strong wrist snap is crucial for creating speed and movement on the ball. The pitcher must cock the wrist on the downward swing and then snap it at the power point by the hip, as in figure 8.7f. With the fastball, the palm and the middle finger point directly at home plate; the first and second fingers are the last to come off the ball.
Young pitchers often err by pitching with the shoulder instead of the wrist, leading the action forward with the throwing-arm shoulder as the arm begins the downward swing from the balance point. The hand with the ball should always lead the action.
The hips, which act as a coil, first store power and then release it just as the hand hits the power point. A common error is for the pitcher to close the hips toward home before the hand reaches the power point, forcing the hand to go around the hip instead of driving down and through directly toward home plate. Remind your pitchers that they cannot pitch through the hip to the release point.
Follow-Through After releasing the fastball, the pitcher continues to move her pitching hand forward and upward on line with the target so the hand ends high, with the elbow near chin-level (see figure 8.7g). The follow-through position for other pitches varies depending on the type of pitch being thrown. After the follow-through, the pitcher needs to bring the ball-side leg toward the plate and assume a fielding position in case the ball is hit back in her direction.
Pair up your pitchers and catchers and separate them by the pitching distance for your age group. The catcher moves her glove to each of the four corners of the plate as a target, and the pitcher practices pitching fastballs to different pitch locations, adjusting her stance and stride slightly as necessary to hit each area. Each pitcher should throw 10 pitches to each corner. If a pitcher has trouble hitting the target, have her move closer to the catcher to make it easier, then gradually move her back.
As noted earlier, some organizations, like Babe Ruth Softball, include only fastpitch divisions, while others include both fast- and slow-pitch. The slow-pitch delivery is also an underhand pitching technique, but other than the basic grip, the mechanics are very different from the windmill pitch just described. The fastpitch motion is a very explosive one, while the slow-pitch technique focuses on a slower, more gradual movement.
Grip The slow-pitch grip is the same four-seam grip used in the overhand throw, as shown in figure 8.1 on page 99. The pitcher grips the ball with the index, middle, and ring fingers spaced slightly apart across one seam and the thumb underneath on the opposite seam. The little finger is on the opposite side of the ball from the thumb. The pitcher should grip the ball with her fingers, not the palm; she should be able to see space between the ball and the palm.
Initial Stance Most leagues require that at least one foot be in contact with the pitching rubber to start the pitch. Teach your players to stand with the heel of the pitching-arm foot on the rubber and the toes of the glove-side foot on or slightly behind the rubber in a comfortable position, with the weight on the back foot. The pitcher should face the batter and must come to a complete stop, with the ball in front of her body for a full second, before starting the delivery (see figure 8.8a).
Windup, Step, and Release The pitcher starts the delivery by swinging the pitching arm down, back, and then forward in a smooth path while the glove arm remains down and slightly out to the side of the body. The throwing-arm motion is not whiplike but rather an easy, semicircular movement. At its highest point in the backswing, the pitching arm is about parallel to the ground, with the palm facing down (see figure 8.8b). As the pitcher brings the ball back, she shifts her weight to her pitching-arm leg (commonly called the drive leg) and steps forward with the glove-side leg (commonly called the stride leg) as she releases the ball in front of her body (see figure 8.8c). This weight transfer to the front foot is gradual, not explosive. According to most slow-pitch rules, the step can be to the front, back, or side, as long as the drive foot remains in contact with the pitching rubber until the ball is released, although young pitchers should focus on a forward motion. The ball is tossed upward, unlike the hip-released bullets in fastpitch, and must follow an arc of at least 6 feet and no higher than 12 feet from the ground. The wrist helps in the throwing motion, but it is not snapped quickly as it is in fastpitch.
Follow-Through After releasing the ball, the pitching arm continues forward, with the hand ending high and the arm close to the pitcher’s ear (see figure 8.8d). Immediately after the follow-through, the pitcher takes several steps back for protection and fielding purposes and assumes the ready position to field any ball hit her way.
Pair up your pitchers and have them stand facing each other at the regulation pitching distance for your league and age group. Place a five-gallon bucket with 20 balls in it next to one pitcher and an empty bucket next to the other, and have the first pitcher pitch all 20 balls, trying to land them in the bucket. The second pitcher gathers the balls and pitches them back.
This is an excerpt from Coaching Youth Softball, 4th Edition.